HDTV Holiday Shopping FAQ

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HDTV prices are hitting record lows this holiday season, so you might be more motivated to go out and buy a new set. Buying an HDTV, however, isn't always as simple as picking out the largest set you can afford. To help, we've compiled and answered the most common HDTV-buying questions. Read on--you might just save yourself the hassle (and fees) of returning a dud.

Should I buy an LCD or a plasma TV?

Both types of TVs have their good points and bad points, but the bottom line is price. If you're looking for a large TV on a shoestring budget, plasmas are your best bet. They've been falling out of favor, though, as many manufacturers are increasingly focusing on LED-backlit LCD TVs. In our most recent HDTV roundup, we found that while plasmas have a price advantage over more-expensive LCD sets, and can produce better black levels than LCDs can, they usually didn't fare so well in overall image quality. Also, LCD TVs are far more power-efficient, so you'll spend more keeping a plasma TV on over the years.

Remember that plasma TVs aren't really cost-effective below 40 inches, so if you're looking for a smaller set you won't have that option. For more on the differences between LCD and plasma TVs, read "Geek 101: LCD and Plasma Basics."

What size HDTV should I buy?

Generally speaking, bigger is better--and not just because you get to brag about how awesome your TV is.

The main thing you should consider when evaluating a new TV (besides your budget, anyway) is how far you'll be sitting from it. Audio/video quality certification company THX recommends that a display occupy 40 degrees of your field of vision, which is approximately 3.5 feet away from a 35-inch TV, 4 feet from a 40-inch model, 5 feet from a 50-incher, and 6 feet from a 60-inch set. Other companies and TV manufacturers have different recommendations, however--Wikipedia has a good listing of different suggestions.

For more on screen sizes, read our HDTV Buying Guide.

I want to see the TV before I buy it. What should I look for on the store floor?

Not comfortable with the thought of buying a TV over the Internet? We don't blame you--there's nothing like seeing a set in person to help you pick one to buy. However, you should keep several things in mind when you shop for a TV in a store.

Retailers have dozens of ways to tweak TVs so that they stand out on the show floor. For example, most TVs come with a "Demo Mode" that cranks up the brightness, contrast, and color so that the set looks more vivid than the ones alongside it on the shelves--even if that causes the live-action movie it's showing to look like a cartoon. If you can, change the TV's settings to "Movie" mode, or a THX-certified mode (if available), to get a better idea of what the set really looks like.

Different TVs excel with various kinds of content, so bring a few examples of the TV shows, movies, and games you'll be watching on your new TV and try them out on the in-store models. In-store demos usually loop a few cool-looking scenes that don't really show off a set's ability to handle motion or dimly lit clips, for example, and gamers will want to try the set themselves to make sure it has no input lag.

For more tips on testing in-store TVs (and seeing through sales tricks), read "10 Things You Need to Know Before Buying an HDTV."

Should I buy a 3D TV?

The Sony Bravia KDL-40HX800 supports 3D--if you have the add-on and glasses.
The Sony Bravia KDL-40HX800 supports 3D--if you have the add-on and glasses.
This is kind of a tricky question. Since many 2010 models at the midrange and high end support 3D, you might end up buying a 3D TV simply because it has the 2D features and performance you're looking for. If you're not looking to break the bank, you can still find a handful of lower-priced 3D plasma displays. The Samsung PN50C490, for example, is a 50-inch 720p plasma TV that typically costs about $1000.

Even if you can afford a 3D TV, however, you still might not want to buy it. Generally 3D models will set you back a few hundred dollars more than an equivalent non-3D set will, and that's not counting the cost of a 3D Blu-ray player, glasses, and everything else. Once you're all set up for 3D, you'll have to find something to watch--and frankly, you won't see a whole lot out there right now.

On the other hand, the 3D TV you buy now probably won't be obsolete in a year or two; early forays into glasses-free 3D don't seem promising enough for you to hold off on buying a current 3D TV set if you really want one. For more on the details of 3D tech, read "Everything You Need to Know About 3D TVs."

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